I arrived in Bangkok in a fog – or a haze, an early morning blanket that shrouded the city and left me even more confused about where I should go and why, exactly, I’d even decided I should go on the trip in the first place. It was only 7am and already it felt like a sauna. Although I’d been here 3 years ago, I wasn’t sure I recognised anything.
Approaching immigration, I received a wide smile from the officer who commented on how tired I looked. “I’ve been flying for 20 hours” I respond. He offers to share his coffee, and solemnly informs me I’ve been admitted to Thailand for 30 days.
I follow my usual routine whenever I arrive somewhere new: find a cash machine, withdraw baht, find the bus ticket office, find bottled water. As we float down the empty highways of the too-early morning, I once again worry I’ve come on this trip simply because I had the ticket, and perhaps I was only attempting to relive a period of my life I’d already finished with: I am no longer a backpacker and world traveller. I’m a grown-up. Right?
As I packed in my room in London, resolutely withdrawing items one-by-one until I reached my goal of 9kg for 3.5 weeks, I wondered if this life I’d built here, and loved, would still be waiting for me when I got back. I shake away these uneasy thoughts and continue preparing – I would be fine.
I last arrived in Bangkok in 2006 – the last stop in a whirlwind trip on my way home from a year in Korea that saw me take in Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand in 6 weeks. Bangkok seemed clean, modern and well organised – but I had a quiet hostel with a large garden next to a local fish market and the large malls reminded me of Korea. I had been in Asia a long time.
Arriving in Bangkok today, I realise I am no longer used to cities that smell (read: stink) at any given time – a normal reality in Seoul or Beijing or most of Southeast Asia. The heat and humidity are overwhelming, and I can’t imagine how I slept in a non air-conditioned dorm for several days. In my room, my shower is a plastic curtained area on the balcony and I remember now sidewalks are no longer for walking, they are street stalls, restaurants with plastic chairs, tuk-tuk driver hangouts and motorcycle parking. Bangkok doesn’t look clean and modern; it looks like a strong wind will blow parts of it over, leaving only 7-11s and cement high-rises.
I am soft, I realise, and annoyed by this. Only 10 months ago I was bumping down side roads on my way to rural villages in Ecuador and 6 months before that I spent the same amount of time in East Timor and Indonesia. It doesn’t matter though, I’m soft now and I can’t hide from it.
I spend the next few days wandering the city by myself, with no particular desire to see anyone or do anything. I don’t meet anyone at my hostel, but I don’t mind. I want books, I want solitude, I want sleep. In London my life is scheduled, my friends around me constantly, and I relish in being able to do exactly what I want to do, when I want to do it: which is nothing.
I eat at street stalls, and I wander the vast MBK shopping centre, using the helpful illustrations in its food court to help me understand what exactly is on sale at different stalls on the street. I’m waiting to leave – to go to Nong Khai, where I’ve heard there is a bizarre mystical Buddhist sculpture park and a guesthouse with an amazing garden and a view of the Mekong river. I board the night train, tentatively, hoping I get my travel legs sometime during the rocking night that lies ahead.